societal reaction

societal reaction

the idea that the social response to an act which is seen as deviant can be crucial in its consequences, particularly in creating or encouraging a deviant lifestyle or identity, or DEVIANT CAREER. The term was first used in this special sense by Edwin Lemert (1951) who argued that the effects of actions of social control agencies (e.g. the POLICE, courts) were most significant in defining, changing or confirming deviance and the deviant actor. This is central to the distinction Lemert makes between PRIMARY DEVIANCE and SECONDARY DEVIANCE. The focus on the reactions of others has meant that the term is often associated with LABELLING THEORY, or with theories of SOCIAL CONTROL.
  1. the totality of human relationships.
  2. any self-perpetuating, human grouping occupying a relatively bounded territory, possessing its own more or less distinctive CULTURE and INSTITUTIONS, e.g. a particular people such as the Nuer or a long- or well-established NATION STATE, such as the UK or US.

Although one of the most basic concepts in sociology, a number of difficulties and disputes surround the use of the concept, especially in the second sense. If the concept of society in the second sense is usually fairly readily applied in the case of well-established nation states, which have their own familial, economic and political institutions and clear borders, the identification of the boundaries of a society is nothing like so easy in the case of, say, ancient empires, which usually consisted of relatively loose assemblies of different peoples, peasant communities, etc., with no conception of shared nationhood (see also NATIONALISM). As indicated by RUNCIMAN (1989),the range of actual 'societal membership’can be highly variable: a ‘member of a local tribal group inhabiting an area on a boundary between zones of patrilineal and matrilineal inheritance; the member of a separate ethnic and religious community in a country ruled by a colonial power; the member of a separatist commune set up within a state’; and so on. The point at which historically a changing society should or should not be treated as the same society is a further issue which can present difficulties. Ultimately the capacity of members to interact with each other and the extent of this interaction, and, historically, the extent of cultural and institutional continuity, is the ‘test’ of whether the concept of a single society applies. This said, in even the apparently most clearly defined societies, such as nation states or a geographically and socially isolated 'simple society’, there will be connections with other societies. Given the increasing globalization of modern social relations, some theorists (e.g. GIDDENS) have argued that the ever-present risk attached to an overemphasis on the concept of unitary societies in sociology is a failure to give sufficient attention to the major importance of inter-societal connections, multi-national organizations, etc.

For DURKHEIM and for some functionalists, 'society’ also exists in a third sense. Durkheim promoted sociology as the 'science of society’ and treated society as a distinct object, with a reality 'sui generis’. As an object of study it was distinct from and greater than the sum of its individual component parts. Its ‘reality’ was a ‘moral power’ external to and constraining human individuals (see SOCIAL FACTS AS THINGS). The issues raised by such further uses of the term have been some of the most contentious of all in sociology. In contrast with ‘classical’ sociological theory, it can be said that contemporary sociology has been increasingly reluctant to theorize society in this way (see HOLISM, METHODOLOGICAL, INDIVIDUALISM, STRUCTURE AND AGENCY). see also SOCIAL SYSTEM.

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